(Note: a longer version of this profile ran in Sunday’s Arts & Books section and on this blog.)
Here’s what I had to say in the original letter:
[S]how us your unique POV: I know many of your customers want a burger, or a steak, or the same sorry dish you’ve been making for 10 years and, well, sure: The customer’s always right. But you went into this line of work to show us who you are as a chef. Show me something that you, personally, in your most uncompromising state of mind, want to eat. Try and advance the agenda. This city needs you more than ever.
Here’s why I think Allin exemplifies this quality:
Name the chefs whose distinctive points of view have influenced and changed the focus of dining in Atlanta, and you come up with a short list. I’d nominate Guenter Seeger, Anne Quatrano, Linton Hopkins and Paul Albrecht, among a few others. Lately, I’ve begun to suspect that Cakes & Ale’s Billy Allin belongs on this list. He isn’t yet as accomplished as these are or were in their heyday, but he continues to refine and develop a vision that’s all his. His menu changes often, and his cooking serves as more of a reaction to what is in season at any time than any preconceived cultural references. If pak choy is coming up in his garden, then he may combine it with tomatoes, cucumbers and sesame oil. Hard squash finds its way not into a creamy soup, but into a supremely weird — yet supremely tasty — salad with cubes of melon and a swipe of creamy ricotta. Maybe not every dish is a hit, but regulars know to give this place latitude. Yet Allin countervails his open approach to combining ingredients with an almost tight-fisted sensibility. He’s not one to pad a plate with cheap greens or starch. In fact, he’d rather just reduce the size of the plate than garnish it with what he considers unnecessary components.
“We don’t flourish the plates. They’re very pretty, but I’m always worried about ‘Chinese buffet syndrome’ — you know, when the sweet and sour pork bleeds into the lo mein. I’d rather people notice the intensity of our flavors.”